Emanuel Emails Detail Secret Plans for South Side Golf Courses

In early August, Mayor Rahm Emanuel used a private email account on his iPhone to send Marty Nesbitt, chair of the Obama Foundation, a message outlining plans to combine two Chicago public golf courses.

In the email, Emanuel forwarded a “golf memo for Potus,” shorthand for President of the United States. The memo, which was written by Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael Kelly on Aug. 3, includes a bold plan to merge Jackson Park Golf Course and South Shore Golf Course into a single 18-hole course.

The memo was drafted the same day Chicago’s Jackson Park was formally announced as the location for the Obama Presidential Center.

“We have an opportunity to transform Jackson Park golf course and South Shore golf course into the strongest urban golf site the PGA tour has seen in 25 years, but only if the Obama Foundation and the community strongly encourage us to reinvest in our two historic golf courses,” Kelly wrote to Emanuel in the memo.

“It is critical for YOU that this project has the support of the Obama Foundation and the surrounding community,” Kelly said.

Throughout his memo, the park district superintendent reiterated the need to get the community behind the plan.

“The community should initiate the request to improve the golf courses,” Kelly said.

“We must be very cautious as this community typically weighs in loudly on any capital project that makes change,” he added, referencing projects that are privately funded and located on public park land, like a Yoko Ono sculpture installation and proposed concert pavillion.

Kelly also noted that an “aggressive timeline” would have to be met in order to host a 2021 PGA Tour event. Additionally, Kelly claimed Mark Rolfing, the NBC-Golf Channel analyst, was tapped by the park district to serve as “Gold Facilities and Industry Advisor” for the project. Rolfing is a Chicago-area native.

According to the memo, Rolfing and Kelly spoke with Nesbitt about a potential site visit with Tiger Woods.

“We think a meeting with the foundation is an excellent idea, but we are concerned about media exposure if Tiger is seen on Chicago’s south side,” Kelly wrote. “Nevertheless, we defer to Marty on this matter and he has our support."

Earlier this month, Woods was tapped as the lead designer for a new $30 million “championship course” on the city's South Side. Kelly said the goal is to have an 80/20 split of private and public funding for the project, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Although it’s unknown whether President Obama saw the emails or Kelly’s memo, sources told the Tribune that POTUS personally called Woods, urging him to take the job as lead designer. 

The Jackson Park/South Shore course will feature 18 holes in addition to a short course or par-3 course. It is expected to remain open to the public.

"This is more than simply a unique opportunity to renovate a historic public golf course, it's a unique opportunity to drive resources and investments on the South Side," Emanuel said in a statement announcing the project. "And even with this restoration the course will remain a real community asset because we're going to ensure that the neighborhood golfers who have been hitting the links here for years will be able to continue to access and enjoy it at a reduced rate."

The groundbreaking is scheduled to take place just months before the 2017 BMW Championship returns to Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest. In his memo, Kelly pushed to redevelop three golf holes to the south of the South Shore Cultural Center in order to advertise the course to PGA officials in town for the tournament.

The project is being overseen by the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, a non-profit launched by Rolfing. The CPGA will partner with the Western Golf Association to promote caddie programs to help young people from nearby neighborhoods earn college scholarships. Earlier this month, Rolfing stressed the importance of community involvement in the project.

"Over the past few years, I have enjoyed meeting many avid golfers on the South Shore and Jackson Park courses," Rolfing said in a statement. "The community's passion for the site motivates the vision to enhance these lakefront facilities they are already so proud of."

As far as the emails, Nesbitt ultimately received Kelly's memo and likely followed up on it with Emanuel.

“Call me to discuss memo when you have a moment,” Emanuel wrote Nesbitt on the morning of Aug. 8.

“Okay. In a big meeting,” Nesbitt emailed back shortly after. “Will call as soon as it’s over.”

Emanuel then responded later that day with the thread’s final message, “No rush."

The thread is part of a cache of emails released last week by the Emanuel administration in accordance with a recent settlement with the Better Government Association, a government watchdog organization, which called the release a "major step forward." 

The settlement followed a years-long battle with City Hall, which initially claimed the emails did not need to be made public. Still the BGA and Chicago Tribune sued, arguing that public business done on private devices should be released.

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